Herbs and Friends: National Herb Week

Spring is greening the roadsides and gardens, and herb enthusiasts in small towns and big cities are getting ready to celebrate ­National Herb Week, May 8-14, a once-a-year occasion to fan the flame of a growing national passion for herbs. Evidence of this infatuation can be seen in the increasing number of herb groups around the country, where members join with old friends and new to explore the beauty and usefulness of their gardens, to organize events and tackle projects, and to share ideas with others over a cup of tea. Here’s a look at seven such groups to show you the diversity that exists and perhaps inspire you to join the fun. If you haven’t yet met the other herb fanciers in your community, look them up and discover what’s on the agenda for the coming months. The National Herb Week calendar on page 39 is one place to start, and if there isn’t a group in your area, why not create one? National Herb Week is a fine time to begin.

Caring and sharing

Herb enthusiasts in the Trumbull, Connecticut, area not only create beautiful herb gardens for their own pleasure, but share their bounty with ­others less fortunate. Members of the Trumbull Unit of The Herb Society of America make Victorian tussie-mussies –herbs and flowers bound into delicate, beribboned bouquets that speak the universal language of love and heartfelt sympathy–and deliver them to hospice patients. Group spokeswoman Nancy Moore reports that the patients enjoy the tussie-mussies enormously “because of the thought that goes into each one.”

The Trumbull group sponsors other helping-hand projects. Members bring to each meeting small items appropriate for women and children who have taken refuge in battered women’s shelters–personal-care gifts for women, books and toys for children, food, and clothing. A YWCA distributes the donations to shelters around the state. ­Several years ago, the group helped to refurbish the greenhouse at Niantic Women’s Prison and establish an herb garden there.

“We’re very diverse,” Nancy says of the group. “We have fifty active members, and they’re all accomplished in many different professional areas. They bring all sorts of connections, for each knows a different part of the community. They make us conscious of the needs of others.”

Northern lights

Herbs in Alaska? Of course. The herb group in Anchorage is so new that it hasn’t yet decided on a name, but members are generating enthusiasm despite the challenges of their climate. Among the herbs that do well there are angelica, horseradish, French tarragon, tansy, mint, and most annuals except basil, according to spokeswoman Cathy Sage, who is helping the new group get organized. “Our season is short,” she explains. “We plant on Memorial Day and harvest before the first frost in September–124 days in all. But the summer days are long, up to 191/2 hours at the summer solstice, and we still have 12-hour days when the first frost hits.”

This spring, the Anchorage group, which currently has about fifteen members, will host its first herbal program–an afternoon tea and workshops and classes taught by local herbalists. The event is planned as a benefit for a new botanical garden to be established in Anchorage. “With the money we raise, we hope to have a great herb garden there,” Cathy says. “People are full of enthusiasm. It’s wonderful to be in at the beginning of such a special project.” Plans for the herb garden include beds for all the familiar culinary and fragrance herbs as well as native plants, and activities such as demonstrations by Native Americans on how local plants were used traditionally.

Victorian fun

Organizing an annual herbal symposium for several hundred people may sound daunting, but for the past thirteen years the Pennsylvania Heartland Unit of The Herb Society of America has rolled up its sleeves and rolled out the welcome mat. The two-day event, held in late June at Albright College in Reading, entices visitors from all over the country, some returning year after year. Last year’s symposium, “Lavender and Lace”, was a charming Victorian ­affair featuring noted herb experts Bertha Reppert, Jane Cole, and Arthur O. Tucker speaking on Victorian themes. Workshops were offered on a variety of subjects, and tours of five local herb, flower, and sculpture gardens were conducted. The symposium concluded with a traditional Victorian ­wedding dinner; a highlight of the event was a Victorian hat contest, with participants modeling their own creations.

This year’s symposium, scheduled for June 25-26, will focus on the theme “Gardening Through the Eyes of Children”, according to the program chairwoman, Priscilla Plucinsky. Tasha Tudor, the beloved illustrator of children’s books, will be a special guest. The young at heart will learn how to make rosebud necklaces, entice butterflies to their gardens, and use edible flowers to garnish tea sandwiches.

Garden blessings

Last August, on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, members of an herb group gathered to reenact a traditional garden harvest blessing that was once celebrated annually on this date. Father Randy Roux, rector of St. Anselm Catholic Church in Mandeville, Louisiana, and an active member of the New Orleans Unit of The Herb Society of America, which organized the ceremony, reminded participants that a relationship with the natural world is a spiritual experience and that for centuries plants have played an important role in the celebration of religious festivals. He blessed a chalice of water, sprinkled it on the garden, then blessed the herb garden itself. A soloist, accompanied by a flute, sang while a statue of the Virgin Mary in the garden was crowned with a wreath of fragrant rosemary, whose blossoms are said to be the very blue of her cloak.

The service took place at Longue Vue Gardens, an eight-acre estate that is now a museum and public gardens, which many members of the herb group help maintain. “All gardens are blessed,” says Anne Abbott, president of the group, “but this was a very special occasion.”

Members of the New Orleans group are also involved with the re-creation of an herb garden at the Ursuline Convent in New Orleans. The convent was built in 1752 for twelve nuns who had come from France to teach and staff a hospital. (“Even then, New Orleans was thought to be wild, with gambling and other unsavory activities going on,” Anne says.) One of the nuns, trained as a pharmacist, is believed to have had a medicinal garden on the convent grounds. Members of the herb group are now searching old records written in French for clues to the location of the garden and the herbs that grew there so that the finished garden will be historically accurate and contain herbs used in plant medicines of the period. “It’s an ongoing project, and we’re very excited about its potential,” Anne says. “We feel we are looking deep into the past.”

Herbal plenty

The monthly newsletter of the Arizona Herb Association tells of an energetic group of herb gardeners, cooks, and craftspeople who maintain many demonstration gardens (including culinary, knot, southwestern, medicinal, dried floral, and edible flower gardens) on the grounds of the Maricopa County Extension Office in Phoenix. They also present educational displays and garden shows, manage a speakers’ bureau, and help organize a large annual Spring Garden Fair. Their meetings include presentations on such topics as desert wildflowers and the tools of oldtime herbalists.

But the club’s focal event of the year, according to its president, Mary Rider, is the Holiday Herbal Cook-Off in December. Thirty to forty members and guests treat themselves to a feast of flavorful dishes, each beautifully displayed. Members judge the fare and award prizes in several categories. The pot­luck, which has been held annually for the past seven years, has included such unusual dishes as Dorothy Gunderson’s Focaccia with Onions, Rosemary, and Feta Cheese; Phyllis Mack’s Broccoli and Tomato Christmas Wreath; and Mike Hills’s Rosemary Cheesecake. The recipes have been compiled in a cookbook, Eight Years of Cooking with Herbs, the second edition of which will be published this year. To obtain a copy, send $10 plus $2 shipping to the Arizona Herb Association, PO Box 63101, Phoe­nix, AZ 85082.

Creating community

“Holistic herbalists” is the term Krista Thie uses to describe the Klickitat Herbalist Guild in White Salmon, Washington. This group is made up primarily of women who want to expand their awareness of all aspects of herbalism, find their place in the green world, and empower themselves and each other. The group coalesced several years ago when Susun Weed taught a day of workshops; since then, it has sponsored many other presentations on such topics as menopause, nutrition, aroma­therapy, herbal rituals, and medicinal teas and tinctures. The group meets often for herb walks through the forest, potluck dinners, and weekend retreats. “We’re trying to use the resources around us as wisely as possible to heal ourselves and to heal the planet,” Krista says.

The group publishes a quarterly newsletter that contains columns about native herbs, a calendar of local events, personal essays, and favorite recipes, such as Hip-Haw Jam and Garlic Recovery Soup. “It’s really the newsletter that holds us together,” Krista says. “Many of us live some distance from one another. In this rural area, when we’re busy with family and work, it’s easy to feel isolated. Our interest in herbs and wild plants brings us together in deep, profound ways.”

The women’s desire to share their ­vision of health and wholeness and community with the natural world fuels their dreams; among their plans are a regional herb network for the Pacific Northwest, a support group for women’s herb businesses, and perhaps a local organic herb marketing co-op. Theirs is a large and hopeful vision, but the Klickitat Herbalists are already working to bring it about.

Learning and teaching

Educating themselves and others about the uses of herbs is the mission of the Knox Herb Society, established nine years ago in Knoxville, Tennessee. Members conduct educational programs at the historic Ramsey House, built 200 years ago by a colonel in the territorial militia. These have included daylong herbal workshops for Girl Scout troops, according to member Cleva Morrow. Scouts aged nine through twelve visit the house and its gardens with their troop leaders as a requirement for their folk art badge. “We show them what life was like in the early days,” Cleva says. The Scouts learn how herbs were traditionally grown, dried, and preserved, and how they were used for cooking and medicine. They taste herb teas, sample herb breads, and make wreaths with materials gathered from the Ramsey House garden, which is maintained by Knox Society members. “We have all the herbs that would have been grown here 200 years ago–wormwood and southernwood, lady’s-bedstraw, dill, tansy, comfrey, fennel, and the mints. One year, we even had hops,” Cleva says.

The Knox herbalists are committed to passing along the rich folk tradition of the Appalachian Mountains, and they find many opportunities to get involved with community events and festivals. The Knox Herb Society also tends the herb garden at the Ijams Nature ­Center, part of which was originally designed for visually impaired children. Herbs planted there include woolly-leaved lamb’s-ear as well as fragrant lavender, rosemary, and Russian sage. “We’d like everyone to be able to experience these wonderful plants,” Cleva says. The society, which caps its membership at thirty, grew out of the Master Gardener Program of the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service.

Susan Albert, who lives with her husband in Bertram, Texas, pens mystery novels, herbal and otherwise. Among her books are Hangman’s Root and Thyme of Death. For help in identifying sources for this article, Susan thanks The Herb Society of America; Carla Nelson, editor of Herb Gatherings; and Maureen Rogers of the Herb Growing and Marketing Network.

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